If only I had …
My deepest and most painful regret is not spending more time with my dear brother before a tragic accident killed him.
I regret, too, not telling my dear father that he was the bravest of men, shamefully not giving more to homeless people I walked past on my daily commutes when living in London, not speaking up more against loud-mouthed bigots, trying too hard to fit in, not allowing myself to dare to be brilliant, not travelling more before the pandemic and much more.
Some of my regrets bundle up under the category of allowing my fears to stop me from living life – from doing more, saying more, acting more, thinking more, loving more, laughing more, dreaming more, risking more. And some regrets bundle up under the category of all the wrong and hurtful things I have done to others.
“Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears” – Les Brown
So, you see, I have my share of regrets, but perhaps the most damaging regret still to this day is burying some of those regrets so deep that I have spans of time where I have convinced myself that I regret nothing!
“Non je ne regrette rien” (translates to “I have no regrets”) – Charles Dumont
But, wait a minute … isn’t it good not to have regrets? Not to live in the past? Aren’t we supposed to live in the moment? Actually, regret can give us a lesson in life; it can feed the present, it reminds us that life is short and that opportunities may be once in a lifetime. So, in this way, regret can be utilised to propel us into living a life well lived. Indeed, a life without regret would most likely be a life where we will continue to repeat self-destructive and harmful behaviours.
“Life, if well lived, is long enough” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca
I don’t mean to suggest that we should ruminate or live inside our regrets, especially as we all know that going down the rabbit hole of ruminations can lead to depressive and anxious thinking. Instead of ruminating, we can practice the first lesson in psychological intervention which is acceptance. Because the more we accept our feelings, the more in control of them we become.
Taking these thoughts forward, here are some tips that can free us from the rigid thinking that leads us to getting stuck in a joyless, regretful life:
1. Acceptance that we are not our ideal selves Starting with acceptance is key to all self-growth. If we don’t accept truthfully where we are, who we are, who we are not, what we did, what we didn’t do – we find ourselves in a battle with ourselves which only results in NO action, NO change, only internal pain. Once we accept that perhaps we are not where we want to be, only then we can move forwards.
2. Accurately labelling what you’re feeling allows the appropriate response and learning When you allow yourself to be overwhelmed by feelings of regret because you did not do this and did not do that, we might overdramatise.
Like – “I feel bad because I never told dad what he most needed to hear. I am a lousy daughter.”
(This generalising of the emotions can lead to self-loathing, self-attack and a feeling of helplessness.)
Accepting the feelings of regret instead of denying them, acknowledging and accurately labelling what you are actually feeling allows you to specifically pinpoint the regret and identify the learning for the future. And so, we might say instead:
“I am feeling remorse and sadness because I didn’t tell dad what a brave man he was.”
This leaves space for the thought that you are still a good enough daughter, and an acknowledgment that there are other things you may have said. There may be an appropriate sense of sadness and loss, but this feels manageable with time.
And then the learning that can take place:
Perhaps now you could take the time to reflect upon things that you would like to say, and what you think your loved ones may need to hear from you? Perhaps this year you might send birthday cards to them and use the opportunity to say these things. And maybe then, you can feel grateful for the learning from the past regret.
3. Don’t avoid and don’t self-attack – Face your regrets with understanding and a kind heart Too often, we kick ourselves hard for our perceived mistakes, forgetting that mistakes are an inevitability of life. We can trap ourselves in the cycle of regret, by repeating self-attack – “I’m a bad person because I haven’t cared enough for people worse off than me”.
We could seek to understand and ask ourselves instead:
“Why did I walk past all those homeless people? Was it because there was too much pain to tolerate every day? Was it because I had read a derogatory and bigoted article about the vast amounts of money homeless people were earning a day, at that time?”
Remind yourself to be kindhearted to you and not a tyrant that demands perfection! Bounce back from your mistakes. Give yourself understanding.
4. Find new possibilities and dare to repair Instead of punishing yourself, look for the learning. We can live in yesterday or we can accept the regret and plan for new possibilities, new ways, and move through the regret and look forward.
“Stay away from what might have been and look at what can be” – Marsha Petrie Sue (dá destaque)
It’s such a futile task to punish yourself when you could repair the damage instead. If you have done wrong by someone, or hurt someone inadvertently, then accept and dare to repair the damage caused by your mistake. Make a plan and take the steps to make amends.
5. Give yourself time Emotions stick around if we avoid, self-attack, ruminate and repress. Allow yourself to be upset appropriately and give yourself time to allow the emotion to fade away.
Some regrets will take more time to accept and to work themselves out of our system before we can feel energised to move forward.
And a final reminder: a life well lived is actually a life full of mistakes.